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How to Photograph Stars & Night Skies

You’ve found the ideal starry sky. Now, shoot the sparkling display—without investing in a new camera.
Crater Lake National Park. photo: Ben Canales

How to Photograph Stars: The Basics

Boost Star Power

Select a site. For the darkest skies, go 60 to 100 miles from cities. You want an open view of the heavens, with a horizon that fills one-third of the frame. At high elevations, notice the effect of a thinner atmosphere overhead: Shooting through fewer light-dispersing particles creates crisper, brighter shots.

Find targets.
Research moon phases and constellations with apps like Star Walk (iPhone) or Google Sky Map (Android), or software like Stellarium (free; stellarium.org), which shows you the sky view from specific places at any time of night.

Improve night vision. Allow your eyes to adjust to darkness by turning off the lights for 45 minutes. Need to illuminate the trail or camera controls? Cover one eye when the light is on—the protected eye will stay dark-adapted. If you need a headlamp, use one like Petzl’s Tikka XP ($55; petzl.com); its red LED won’t ruin night vision.

Avoid Common Mistakes

Beginner: Leaving the camera’s autofocus setting on, which delivers out-of-focus star shots.
Fix: Set the camera to manual and adjust the focal length to infinity (∞). Check that far-off stars are in focus by snapping a test shot, then review the shot by zooming in to the sky’s brightest star on the LCD display. If it appears out of focus, adjust.

Intermediate: Judging a shot’s exposure by looking at the LCD screen.
Fix: Confirm correct exposure using the histogram—a graph that shows an image’s range of light. If the graph is shaped like a mountain or range, your image is exposed correctly. If the mountain shape has cliff-like edges at the ends of the graph, continue adjusting settings.

Advanced: Using automatic noise reduction for every shot. While it improves image quality, it also doubles each picture’s shooting time and burns through battery life.
Fix: Disable noise reduction (in your camera’s settings menu) for test images. Reset it for your last exposure. Not planning to print your shot? For digital, low-resolution displays you can clean up graininess at home using noise filters in basic editing software.

How to Photograph Stars: Next Level

Take Test Photos

Situate and orient. Point your tripod-mounted camera away from artificial light sources like distant cities or roads.
Set your camera to capture extra light. Open the aperture wide (low f-stop numbers represent larger apertures), and select the highest ISO (1600 or above). Use a shutter speed that allows your camera to catch excess light (30 seconds).
Shoot a few overexposed pictures. Many areas may appear white, but quality doesn’t matter, it’s composition that counts. Examine these shots for desirable elements like rocks or trees—or for distractions like an angled horizon, bright spots caused by light pollution, or clouds. Note the focus of stars and foreground objects.

Adjust composition and focus. Turn and pan the camera to frame your desired scene; tilt it to level the horizon. Refocus if necessary.
Fine-tune. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve framed the desired shot. Then, based on conditions and content (see chart below), adjust ISO, aperture, and shutter speed to expose properly.
Shoot RAW images. Plan to print? RAW files are like negatives, and allow more editing flexibility. Save storage space: Shoot in RAW, but delete test shots.

How to Photograph Star Trails

Exposure time: 32m
Aperture (f-stop): f/16
Sensor speed (ISO): 400
Key adjustment: Experiment with exposure times lasting from several minutes to several hours. Longer times will show longer trails.

To capture arcs of light, shoot long exposures on clear nights (clouds obscure the stars). For vortex-like circles, center your frame on the North Star.

How to Photograph Stars in the Sky

Exposure time: + 8s
Aperture (f-stop): f/2.8
Sensor speed (ISO): + 1600
Key adjustment: Use a high ISO (higher than 1600 if possible) so the camera sensor registers low-light despite exposure times short enough to freeze stars.

Aiming at the Milky Way? It’s brightest in the southern sky; go south of cities and orient south. For the aurora, go north of cities, and point north.

How to Photograph the Moon

Exposure time: 1/250s
Aperture (f-stop): f/11
Sensor speed (ISO): 100
Key adjustment: The moon is bright (and tracks quickly across the sky), so use a fast shutter speed to capture its surface details without overexposing them.  Zoom in with your longest lens and focus on the moon’s surface features. Crop shots with photo editing software at home (to enlarge the moon’s relative size).

How to Photograph a Moonlit Landscape

Exposure time: 2m
Aperture (f-stop): f/16
Sensor speed (ISO): 1600
Key adjustment: Use a small f-stop to give your image greater depth of field so you can focus both near and far elements at the same time.  A quarter moon can cast enough light to brighten a scene. On cloudy nights, expect shadowless images. On clear nights, shadows may be harsh.

How To Photograph Stars: Advanced

Layer Images for Otherworldly Effects

Create a scene that merges your favorite nighttime shots into one. First, take an underexposed base image of your scene, then add light or change exposure settings in subsequent shots to accentuate different features—foreground objects, the stars, or alpenglow on the landscape. In Photoshop or other photo-editing software, overlay your darker base image with the highlighted ones, and use layer masks to obscure or reveal elements you want to include in the final image. Layer short-exposure star shots to create star tracks with free layering software like StarStax (starstax.net).

Capture sharp pictures of a moving target. The Earth’s rotation can blur the moon and stars during long exposures. Adjust your ISO (higher) and f-stop (larger) to minimize exposure time, eliminating motion-caused blur. Determine max exposure time with this equation: 400 divided by the focal length. The result is your exposure-time limit, in seconds.

Paint with Light Experiment with headlamps and other lights to show foreground detail, take more dynamic shots, and have fun.

Illuminate objects. During a long exposure, flash or sweep your headlamp over trees, people, or rock formations. You’ll brighten them in the final photo, while still exposing for and capturing the sky. You can also shine a headlamp in a tent (turn it on for several seconds during the shot) to give it a glowing appearance.

Write with a beam. Hold your light, point it directly at the camera while the shutter is open, and “write” with it across your frame. Spelling words? Letters will record as mirror images; scribble them backward so they’re legible in the finished photograph. Experiment with a long exposure time and low ISO, like 100.

Change lights. Take advantage of the different light temperatures, intensities, and beam sizes cast by multicolored LEDs, fluorescent and incandescent bulbs, and candles. Use separate light sources to paint different areas of the same scene. For example, in one photo use a headlamp to illuminate a tent, a lantern to light up a person, and a compact LED to write words.

Ben Canales is a Portland, OR-based photographer. See more of his night sky photos here

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